Sunday, 9 November 2014

Doctor Who Review: Death in Heaven

Let's get the spoilers out of the way.

Humanity's most desperate spiritual hopes become a typical 21st century let-down: the afterlife is in fact The Cloud. The Master (aka Missy) puts the NSA to shame, and doesn't just back up and peer into our lost lives, but also uses them to reboot our rotting corpses as Cybermen. But even for a megalomaniacal Time Lord turned deranged Mary Poppins, human consciousness remains an unsolved puzzle, and the heartiest of our forebears stay loyal to their former species even from within their shiny new bodies. Chief among these diehard heroes were of course good old Danny Pink, and a clever reappearance by that old hand at human preservation, the Brigadier.

A cursory glance at some of the early reviews suggests that the episode went down well. None of Robin Hood's meta madness, no sign of the poorly set-up faux-foe of Listen, the blatant scientific ignorance of Kill the Moon (science is long forgotten by now), or the fairytale sappiness at Midnight in the garden of good and evil (or whatever it was called). This time the superlatives were flying thick and fast, like the Cybermen jetting out of St Paul's.

It didn't really work for me, but I can see their point. There were many great ideas. The Doctor got to be the President, and on Air Force One no less. Then he got to skydive to the free-falling Tardis -- which then whipped back up into the air with a dematerialisation roar as victorious as the theme tune ringing out when Indiana Jones swung on that vine to the escaping seaplane. There were even Thunderbirds references. There were also encores from earlier in the season. Clara pretended to be the Doctor again, and Missy re-enacted the Mummy's death countdown. And amongst all of the soap-opera-turned-tragedy Danny drama and moral pontification, I can at least appreciate the sentimental power of the final scenes. Danny was able to achieve the impossible, and bring back the child's life he'd once taken, and, even more impressively done, the Doctor and Clara parted while jokingly covering up their respective personal heartbreaks.

As I say, it didn't work for me. The set-up felt clunky, and I had never been able to believe in the characters anyway, and there were just too many moral dilemmas and "impossible choices". The BBC voice-over before the episode was very clear on this: "Up next, the Doctor faces an impossible choice." What an understatement: in this episode he faced about five of them. I didn't understand why Cyber-Danny left Clara in a graveyard, or why the Doctor couldn't have ordered the Cybermen to incinerate the acid raincloud himself, or why the Cybermen believed Clara's bluff about being the Doctor, when she must have failed the first test of every alien scanner in the history of the show, i.e., having merely one heart.

You may complain that I'm analysing the show too much. I should just relax and enjoy it. Well, shame on you! That's not how it works. A piece of fiction should cast a spell. It should be a piece of modest hypnosis. We should forget reality, we should forget plausibility, and we should be carried away. A poor piece of fiction will fool no-one, and an incredible piece will work on almost everyone -- even the doubters, even the cynics, and even those who have turned up to knock it down. It should certainly work on those who have avidly followed what went before, not just for the last three decades, but also the first half of the story just the week before.

The reviews were mostly positive, some exceedingly, and so perhaps it did work its magic for the majority of the audience. Perhaps I am just a statistical anomaly. Bad luck for me. Oh well.

In another of the Third Doctor's favourite expressions that has come to mind lately, "Where there's life, there's hope." The Christmas Special teaser trailer with Santa Claus himself suggests we're in store for something even more appalling than what we got last year -- but I'll live in hope that my doubts will be cast aside in a flurry of sharp Arctic wind, and I'll be blown away by 45 minutes of spellbinding entertainment. There were episodes in this shaky season that have done that (precisely three: Time Heist, The Mummy, and Flatline), and I'm confident there will be more again.

For those who've loved Doctor Who, or loved complaining about it, an interminable desert of dull empty weeks lies before you. But fear not: you can join me on my own fantastic round-the-world adventures in Real Science Fiction. Who knows -- maybe the shady villain will turn out to be the Master?

Other Doctor Who reviews:
Robot of Sherwood
Time Heist
The Caretaker
Kill the Moon
Mummy on the Orient Express
In the Forest of the Night
Dark Water

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